Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, the excellent Lincoln, has prompted a flood of blog posts, newspaper columns and articles, and broadcast commentaries about the lessons that today’s politicians can learn from President Lincoln and the strategy he used in his battle to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. As it happens, Spielberg is not the only prominent artistic figure to focus on the 16th president and to draw implicit parallels between the challenges that faced him and those facing modern political leaders. In 1938, Robert Sherwood, a highly successful Broadway playwright, used Lincoln as a way of exploring what Sherwood felt was America’s moral responsibility to stop Adolf Hitler in his quest to conquer Europe.
One of the best-known literary figures in New York and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, the 43-year-old Sherwood had become convinced that Nazi Germany represented a mortal danger not only to Europe but to the United States and the rest of the world. At the same time, he was a diehard pacifist who abhorred the very idea of war, thanks in part to his own horrific experiences in the trenches of France during World War I. After the war. cynical and disillusioned by the bloodbath he had witnessed, he returned to New York, where he began churning out hit plays, most of which dealt in some fashion with what he considered the mindless, nonsensical folly of war.
As Europe again drew close to the brink of war in the 1930s, Sherwood struggled to find a balance between his hatred of militarism and his growing conviction that Hitler and Mussolini must be stopped. After Britain and France’s sell-out of Czechoslovakia at Munich, he finally abandoned his pacifism: “I feel that I must start to battle for one thing — the end of our isolation. There is no hope for humanity unless we participate vigorously in the concerns of the world and assume our proper place of leadership with all the grave responsibilities that go with it.”
His change of heart energized him into writing another play. Reaching back to the past, it would focus on Abraham Lincoln, who, like Sherwood and millions of other Americans, had been a man of peace forced to grapple with the dilemma of appeasement or war. Abe Lincoln in Illinois follows Lincoln in his pre-presidency days, as he agonizes over what position to take on slavery. Should he remain quiet and let that evil institution metastasize throughout America or should he stand firm against it, thus accepting the possibility of civil war, the idea of which he hates as much as slavery itself?
In tracing Lincoln’s tortuous journey from neutrality to his acknowledgement of the need to take action, Sherwood clearly meant to equate America’s dilemma in the 1850s to the one it faced in the late 1930s — a parallel that was abundantly clear to the play’s audiences. In the view of drama critic Heywood Broun, Abe Lincoln in Illinois was “the finest piece of propaganda ever to come into our theater…To the satisfied and the smug, it will seem subversive to its very core. And they will be right…It is the very battle cry of freedom.”
Abe Lincoln in Illinois was a smash hit and won Sherwood his second Pulitzer Prize. But he was no longer content with just writing plays. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, he decided to step from behind his playwright’s persona and speak out as Robert Sherwood. He became one of the country’s most outspoken interventionists and in 1940, went to work for Franklin Roosevelt as a top adviser and speechwriter.
During this period, Sherwood observed that he still hated war with all his might. But, he added, “the terrible truth is that when war comes home to you, you have to fight it; and this war has come home to me.”